An invitation from the American University of Beirut's Olayan School of Business to speak at a regional CSR conference earlier this month provided an opportunity to assess how far the business and human rights agenda has penetrated the Middle East and North Africa. It was a good reality check.
In two days of lively discussion about responsible business in the region, human rights were hardly mentioned. Indeed, if I had not raised the subject, it might not have featured at all. That is not to say that businesses in the region are oblivious of human rights issues, or at least of economic rights. It is just that these issues are seen through a developmental, rather than a human rights, lens. There were some excellent stories about company activities aimed at improving access to education and health, empowering women, creating jobs and fighting poverty. Many businesses also have mechanisms in place to fight corruption, at least in their own business dealings.
But the lack of a human rights focus means that these challenges tended to be viewed from the angle of the business, rather than the people affected. Nor was there much appetite to discuss political rights, despite the controversy over the role of communications companies in last year's unrest in Egypt, or the role of businesses in conflict-affected, or post-conflict, areas. Apart from a thought-provoking keynote speech by the Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade, there was no evidence of government engagement during the discussions.
The programme was thoughtfully put together and excellently organized by the Director of the University's CSR Initiative, Professor Dima Jamali. As more governments and companies develop policies and processes to apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, it is probably only a matter of time before human rights assume a more prominent place in discussions in the region about responsible business practices. The issue is already on the University's agenda, as is the need for greater government engagement alongside business and civil society.